Spoiler Warning!!! Journey is so unique and so brief that it is genuinely worth avoiding reading or watching anything about it until you have played it. You will only have one chance to discover this amazing game for yourself, and I’m going to discuss details assuming you have played it, loved it, and obsessed about it as much as I have… If you have not played it yet, please stop reading now!
Journey is something special, verging on the sublime. There is a unique vision here, the product of a rare kind of creative mind.
The name Jenova Chen has always been associated with exceptional and beautiful games that try to do something completely different. His company, ThatGameCompany, states their mission as being to “create timeless entertainment that make positive change to the human psyche worldwide.” These are very rare goals in the game industry, even at indie studios. They always attempt to show you something you have never seen or felt before. The emotional impact of the game is the priority that everything else is designed around. They are not just entertaining, they seek to move you, and change who you are.
There is often a strong message or theory behind the games. Flow, originally a student thesis, was a proof for Chen’s theoretical ideas on game design, and showed that he was already thinking about game design in a unique way. Cloud, a peaceful game about a flying cloud-boy, was a statement about what games could be if they broke the mould and tried something new. The goals and philosophies explored in it have continued to be central to Chen’s design philosophy. In Flower, Chen continued to explore the theme of emotional expression in games. Underneath the meditative gameplay is a tastefully stated ecological message told by simply contrasting the calm beauty of nature with the harshness of the urban environment.
Journey, Chen’s latest creation, could be interpreted as a metaphor for a life, a spiritual journey through the struggles and trials of existence, during which we are sometimes lucky enough to have a companion to share the experience with.
The story of the game is very simple, a long walk over a desert, through a sunken city, and up a mountain. You begin as a solitary figure, walking through a desert that has buried the ancient remains of a fallen civilisation. In the distance there is a shining mountain, your destination, which you move ever-closer to.
Your character has a limited ability to fly and glide when charged with ‘flying energy’ that is stored in a scarf that wafts behind. The scarf can be extended throughout the game to increase your ability to fly, but it is always a tantalising flight that leaves you wishing you didn’t have to come back to the ground.
The games that Jenova Chen designs always feature a purity and simplicity. They create moods and express ideas without any additional weight or clutter. The character design, the colour palette, the environment, the music and sound design, are all exercises in subtlety. There is never more or less than is needed to make you feel a certain way.
Journey is visually stunning. The artistry is sometimes overwhelmingly lovely. The art direction is very different from what we are generally used to in games. It is more like an animated film — one you would watch again and again just to look at. So many games try for total realism and detail, an ultimately unattainable goal. Journey takes a much more painterly approach, using very little in the way of dynamic lighting and shadow casting, instead using flat colours and simple textures. This minimalist approach has allowed them to polish the game to perfection.
The desert setting of the game is a stroke of genius. Rather than focusing on small details they have chosen to create wide-open spaces filled with light, each with its own carefully chosen colour palette. Colour is used powerfully in Journey to convey the mood of each setting.
The open desert can feel lonely. There is a sadness in the game from its first moments when you pass through a field of grave-like markers sticking crookedly from the sand. This feeling works perfectly with Journey’s unique multiplayer experience. As you progress through the game you encounter other players who are passing through the same locations. You only ever meet a single companion at a time, and you can optionally travel on with them, as is obviously the intention of the designers. In this lonely setting, you experience a genuine sense of connection with your companion. You don’t want to be separated from them.
Communication is limited to a song-like chirping, and there is no way to know who you are playing with. The connection is anonymous, and yet you can communicate so personality much through your actions. Multiplayer mode is built around kind gestures, things like waiting for a slower companion to catch up, and leading the way to hidden items and easter eggs.
Aside from companionship, the multiplayer mode has other benefits. Companions are able to ‘charge’ each other up, so two can travel much more easily than a single player, who must rely on magical materials in the environment to gain ‘flying energy’.
The multiplayer experience vastly increases replay value — every experience feels like a different story. The frame is the same, but the tale of camaraderie and mutual discovery is unique with each retelling.
Accompanying the story of the individual journey, there is a much broader story that contains the real moral of the game. It is a warning about the dangers we face in our own world. Once again, Chen visits this theme of nature overrun by a technological society, by revealing the history of the game-world. We are shown the story of a civilisation that is all too similar to our own. A simple race of people springs up, and develops a magic ( technology ) that is in harmony with nature. Gradually their power grows, until it reaches a frightening moment of evolution. The old magic is twisted into a dark new form and cruelty enters the world. The civilisation is no longer in balance and destroys itself in a great war, fighting over the power they have created. All that remains is the deserted ruins the game takes place in.
As always, the moral message is expressed with taste, without being overbearing or in-your-face. It is just there, part of the world of the game, for you to think about if you want to.
In an industry dominated by games about killing and violence, Journey dares to create an experience that is completely unique, with an entirely different set of priorities and messages. It succeeds absolutely, giving us a glimpse of what video games can really be, and how limited our explorations have been so far into this very young art form.
Journey is a true classic that should be played not just by lovers of games, but by everyone.